london green apartment

HOLIDAY RENTAL REVIEW: A key part of sustainability is good, useable design and specification so the buildings we create serve us well from the outset and don’t present us with reasons to want to change them – because changes cost resources and resources cost the earth.

In London I recently stayed in a new five-storey, 18-apartment building that seems to tick all the sustainability boxes: offsite-fabricated, acoustically insulated cross laminated timber (CLT) construction with the environmental systems integrated, an efficient built form, high levels of insulation, a green roof, solar control optimisation to prevent overheating, a mix of Low NOx gas boilers and heat pump under-floor heating, and heat-pump cooling in the penthouse, energy efficient lighting and PVs on the roof to offset CO2 emissions and MVHR (mechanical ventilation heat recovery) air handling.

The apartment was the Holy Grail of London short-term executive rentals: three bedrooms, built-ins in each, two bathrooms – essential when travelling with three generations of family – in a modern building, central location and, above all, comfortable – at least on paper.

But, like so many London developments, it was let down by the details – which may have been reasonable in a building adapted for reuse, but this building is a new-build. Even the heritage façade from the old cinema on the site was knocked down and rebuilt because the original was too far gone.

The door scrum in the hall

The problems started at the front door, which opened not into the spacious hallway, but the inevitably ajar bathroom door, creating a scrum of doors through which no human could pass.

The door scrum could have been completely avoided by moving the bath to the opposite side of the bathroom and moving the bathroom door further along the hall – a change that would have cost nothing in the design phase, but we’re now stuck with for the life of the building.

Look up from the bench and see… OMG

The design problems didn’t stop there.

Looking up from the kitchen bench at the wrong moment presented a direct line of sight through the living room, across the hall and along the master bedroom directly to the gaping maw of the toilet in the master ensuite – a problem that could have been solved by re-configuring the ensuite to relocate the door, or, better, swapping the ensuite with the walk-in wardrobe next to it. Every morning risked a very conspicuous nudie run through what should be a private space.

And then there were the smaller details

The problems with the master ensuite didn’t end with the exhibitionist room layout. There was the world’s tiniest heated towel rail right next to 1.5 metres of empty blank wall, that could have supported a full-sized version.

The lack of heated towel rail space was important because the towel rail was needed every day to dry the bathmat.

The bathmat was drenched every day by bathroom tapware designed for a different sink than was in the bathroom. The spout extended approximately 20 millimetres over the sink, meaning that any use of the tap for washing hands or wetting a face washer – or even a toothbrush – sent water cascading into everywhere but the sink.

This wasn’t a one-off problem – the family bathroom had the same issue, so it looks like a specification error.

And, finally, both bathrooms were fitted with fabulous rain showers with a switching tap to give you the option of using the wall-mounted shower-head if you don’t like the rain.

But the wall-mounted hand-shower was installed at waist height, in the corner, so it wasn’t a second shower option at all. It was a belly washer, and nothing more.

For the record, I – balding, short-cropped hair – loved the shower. My wife – a luxuriant bob – cursed the shower every morning for three weeks.

Mind your head

In the laundry cupboard, located off the kitchen, the MVHR unit and washing machine were positioned in such a way that anyone using the washing machine risked concussion or actually impaling their head on the corner of the MHVR unit – which may be OK given how clean your head will be after using the shower.

I came out one morning to find my mother carefully taping the contents of an entire box of disposable plastic gloves she’d bought at the corner shop to the MHVR unit as head padding.

The curse of the air freshener

It turns out the excellent draught sealing of modern sustainable buildings can be as much a curse as a blessing. All the talk about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) at TFE’s Happy Healthy Offices 2019 came to mind as I sat in the lounge room with my eyes watering under the oppressive presence of some sticks in a jar that smelled strongly of Dove soap.

First, we hid the jar behind the TV but after two days, we moved it to the balcony, where it stayed until we left.

Minidresses and bumfreezers only!

Built-in wardrobes are practically unheard of in London so the fact that they were present at all was a major bonus in this property. The joy lasted precisely the time it took to hang anything inside because every wardrobe in the place was divided horizontally into two.

It was impossible to hang a dress anywhere. Even men’s suits and coats touched-bottom.

Beneath the sweltering… ceiling

This property was probably the best insulated building I’ve ever been in – and I’ve been to Iceland, Sweden and Canada. On a positive note, it was desperately easy to heat – any room would rise by one degree for every person inside it within about 10 minutes of their arrival.

We even managed to make it comfortable eventually.

Some thermal vandal had set the living room thermostat to achieve 27 degrees Celsius every afternoon at 3pm. With the thick insulation and under-floor heating, 27 arrived in minutes and stayed for hours.

In desperation, on day two, we opened both sets of timber-framed, double-glazed, double doors onto the balcony to bring the temperature down. It took 20 minutes with the doors open, and the five degree air outside swirling around to make the room comfortable again. It took a further 20 minutes, sitting in front of the thermostat diligently reprogramming, to keep it that way.

Education for designers and users

The design problems in the building may be explainable for good reasons, but my experience of British newbuilds leads me to think that it’s probably more explainable by careless, rushed design.

But the issues of making ourselves comfortable in the space beg another question. Are the levels of technology so high in our new buildings – this one had a programmable thermostat in every space that wasn’t a bathroom, and Bluetooth enabled bathroom cabinets that we never quite understood – that we should be providing manuals with them?

Does living in a sustainable building depend on us understanding how our buildings work and, effectively, sailing them in response to the prevailing conditions? Or can we make them self-managing so that we feel comfortable, instead of confused?

And the final verdict on the flat? I’d stay there again, despite its failings – and that’s why so many developers of new buildings in the UK can get away with near enough is good enough – but if I owned it, I’d be changing a few things.

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  1. I wonder how many of the issues were due to poorly designed and implemented accessibility requirements from Part M of the building code. Regardless, my experience (and my reading for my PhD) tells me that many times it is not so much the designer at fault but the trades. They work to the lines of least resistance which means you get what they find most convenient. The work of Prof Rob Imrie on Part M implementation is an eye opener.